The Pacific Ocean Abyss

Xantu's Abyss

What is it like to travel by fishing boat out to the Abyss? With a group of pelagic birders and a grumpy sea captain, I head out in pursuit of a rare treasure.

Above: The magical water and sky of the Pacific Ocean Abyss, sixty miles from Newport, Oregon.


e've been trying to get out there for three years.  The abyss - the point at which the continental shelf drops off into miles of darkness - is about 60 miles off the coast of Oregon. 

Getting sixty miles out to sea is not easy, and in fact many sea captains and fishermen on this coast have never been out that far.  One reason is boat speed.  To get out and back in a day requires a really fast boat.  The other reason is weather.  The Oregon Coast is often as you might imagine it: bleak, dark, stormy, rough seas.  The third is lack of a reason.  The best  commercial fishing waters off the Oregon Coast exist much closer to shore. 

For the last three years, the trip to the abyss has had to abort due to rough weather.  But in the few days prior to our attempt this year, a lovely calm has settled over the Oregon Coast.

Arctic Terns migrating to Antarctica

An Arctic Tern resting on flotsam on its journey from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

The night before, I drive down to Newport with my birding friend, George.  The weather service reports wind speeds of under one mile per hour.  The day is a go. 

We all know that bays, coasts, estuaries and beaches are filled with life, including, often, birds like pelicans and gulls.  But few people realize that birds also populate the surface of the deep sea across every ocean in the world.

On a perfectly still morning, darkened by a massive layer of fog, George and I meet up with the other seabirders at the dock.  I've been pelagic seabirding for the last five years, although I am always the novice aboard each ship, as happy to see the whales, sharks, seals and tuna as the birds themselves.  This group, however, contains Oregon's elite seabirders; the kind of folks who take repositioning cruises from British Columbia to San Diego just to get access to deepwater birds.  They'll spend 12 hours days out on the deck with a director's chair and a scope, scanning the waters for birds.

But there is a difference between this water, and the water of about 35 miles out-to-sea. This, as the abyss, is a very different kind of ocean, and it attracts a very different kind of bird than the ones who spend much of their time thirty-miles out to sea.

We leave the Newport harbor with the hopes of spotting two species of birds: Leach's Storm-Petrel; a small seven inch petrel which spends all of its non-breeding days far out at sea.  And the Scripps's Murrelet, a tiny seabird which inhabits the waters of the California current.

Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Newport, Oregon

Sixty miles off the coast of Newport, Oregon.

The speedy boat slices through the nearly flat water.  By thirty-five miles out, we've already seen three whale species, dozens of sharks, and over twenty bird species: Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Tufted Puffins, Sooty Shearwaters, Arctic Terns.

Whales are so plentiful, out here, in fact, that we spot one about a quarter-mile in front of the bow. Just a minute later, a Blue Whale - the Earth's largest creature - takes an emergency dive only feet from our bow. Later, the visibly shaken captain explained to me, "I couldn't see that whale because you were all hanging over the bow. We're moving fast. Hitting that whale would have been a disaster."

I didn't know if he meant for the whale or the boat.

When we reach sixty miles, we find a pair of Scripps's Murrelets, quietly floating in the water.  Minutes later, Leachs' Storm-Petrels as well. Having seen both of our target species, the question then becomes: what else is out here? For many of these seabirders, the prize is seeing a bird that may have never been recorded in the State of Oregon.

In places like the Amazon Jungle, a bird species' habitat may be limited to twenty square miles, or along a particular river. Weak wings or the absense of a particular foodsource alone limits the species.

Pelagic seabirds are the opposite, in that their range may be nearly boundless. The Laysan's Albatross we see, today, for example, almost certainly came from the Hawaiian Islands. The thousands of miles across the North Pacific is nothing for these birds.

So, for many of these birders, who will stay focused on the water for the duration of the twelve hour trip, there may be a Hawaiian Petrel or Great Frigatebird just off the edge of the horizon.

For me, I am thrilled simply with the idea of being out in the Abyss. Quiet, languid water, bright sun, whales lazily swimming along the surface. I go into the cabin to clean my camera lens. Usually on these trips, I avoid the cabin, as well as the back of the boat, where many birders spend hours recovering from seasickness. Not so today; in perfect weather and calm seas, everybody is chipper.

In the cabin, I recount the sighting of the Scripps's Murrelet with a bearded pelagic seabirder. Just last year, there was no such thing as Scripps's Murrelet. In 2012, ornithologists decided to split the Xantu's Murrelet, which ranged from Baja to the Pacific Northwest, into two species: the Guadeloupe Murrelet, which ranges in waters off Baja, to the more northerly Scripps's Murrelet.

To the bearded birder, I say, "It's kind of a shame. I liked knowing there was a bird in Oregon called a Xantu's Murrelet."

"Well," says the birder, Xantu still has his hummingbird. Xantu's Hummingbird is endemic to the Baja Peninsula."

"I just don't like the name, Scripps's Murrelet!" I say. "Having a bird with a name like that off the coast of Oregon makes Oregon more exotic."

The birder says, "You know, Xantu was quite a character. I first read about him in Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez."

I tell him I had also read the book, but don't remember reading about Xantu.

"From there, I decided to learn more about him and found his biography at a library. He is a truly fascinating character. John Xantus de Vesey was a Hungarian officer, who escaped to the United States in 1850. In the states, he joined the army and developed an interest in natural history. He was basically able to work as a naturalist for the U.S. Army, exploring the Southwest and Mexico, discovering many new species of plants and animals. Based out of Cabo San Lucas, he explored the deserts and waters of the Baja Peninsula, where he discovered the Xantu's Murrelet."

"I guess I'm okay with our murrelet being re-named," I say. As long as I can always imagine this area to be Xantu's Abyss.

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